Arizona books controversy sparks interest at Kansas City charter school

Thursday, July 19, 2012 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 9:15 a.m. CDT, Monday, October 8, 2012

This story is part of a larger project on book challenges in Missouri and the U.S. Find the full project here.

COLUMBIA — Kansas City and Tucson, Ariz., are a long way from one another, but the controversial demise of a Tucson School District ethnic studies program might affect the way one Kansas City school teaches literature.

Gilbert Guerrero, superintendent of Guadalupe Education Systems in Kansas City, said officials there are studying the possibility of teaching books banned in the Tucson district when the ethnic studies program there was suspended by the state in one of the highest-profile disputes over curriculum and the books comprising it in recent years.

Tucson’s ethnic studies program, started 13 years ago to address high dropout rates among Hispanic students, was suspended by the school district after the state threatened to withhold $1 million in school funding and a judge ruled the program illegal earlier this year.

Lawsuits aimed at saving the program are now making their way through federal courts.

In Arizona, "what they’re saying is that these books promote hatred toward white people or dominant culture," Guerrero said. "A lot of them, really, what they’re about is social justice, issues of poverty."

Guadalupe Education Systems started as an alternative school in 1989 in Kansas City as an effort to bring dropouts back into the classroom. It became a charter school 10 years later and now has 200 high school and 150 middle school students. Seventy percent of its students are Hispanic; at the middle school, 90 percent of the students are English language learners, meaning Spanish is their first language.

Guerrero said the events in Tucson are creating "a lot of momentum with a lot of schools." Guadalupe officials are in the early stages of using events there to build a Hispanic literature curriculum for use in their own classrooms.

Such a curriculum would have a wide variety of books from which to choose — everything from "Pedagogy of the Oppressed" and "Occupied America: A History of Chicanos" to Shakespeare’s "The Taming of the Shrew," which Tucson banned because of themes of socioeconomic inequality, Guerrero said.

Eren McGinnis, producer of "Precious Knowledge," a documentary on the Tucson controversy, said book banning was a major part of the campaign against the ethnic studies program.

"The books were really important," she said. When the program’s literature teacher "can get them to read Latino literature, then he can get them to read Shakespeare."

Opponents of the ethnic studies program "felt they were teaching the kids revolution, and it was also about Mexican-American rights," McGinnis said. "They didn’t want them to study anything that had to do with Mexican-American rights."

In fact, the book ban covered works about social justice that were not primarily concerned with Latinos, she said.

Ironically, the book ban only covered the ethnic studies program. McGinnis said the same books could be taught in English classes if teachers there wanted to do so.

In some cases, the books were physically boxed up and removed while students were in the classroom, she said.

While those who worked to suspend the ethnic studies program maintain that it encouraged racial separatism, students "are really getting another view of history, the way things have been," Guererro said.

"They’re very influenced by social issues because of the immigration debate. They tend to want to read books (about) the things that are impacting their lives on a daily basis."

Guerrero, who grew up in Topeka, Kan., said he understands the thirst some Latino students have for learning about their own culture.

"During my whole education, I never was introduced to any books that had Latino characters. What was critically absent in my whole education was any kind of reference to who I was."

Guererro said that if his school goes ahead with a banned books curriculum, it probably will start in the middle school.

"At this point, we’re really just addressing the issue of censorship, what we can do and can’t do."

The program also would require a learning curve for his teachers, he said. While most of the teachers in the Tucson program were Chicano, only five of Guadalupe’s 40 teachers are. But they would be motivated, because the topic excites students, many of whom have seen their own families confront problems with immigration. 

"They deal with it from knowing a person in that situation; they want to become more active."

While the Tucson controversy has been painful for backers of the ethnic studies program, there are upsides, Guerrero said.

"It’s negative, but it’s good because it’s getting kids interested in reading: Why is this book banned? The message is getting out there."

And it also illustrates a broader issue about literature, he said.

"The interesting thing is that just gets us to understand how important books are. Some people are afraid of them."

Supervising editors are Scott Swafford and Charles Davis.

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